Ontario revamps efforts to name unidentified dead

What a mess: To summarize; to speed up the process of identification, the Federal government consolidated missing persons databases into a centralized system. But the new centralized system is too slow and bureaucratic, so provinces like Ontario want to go back to their former, individualized process:

From the Globe & Mail:

When the federal government created a national missing-persons centre in 2011, the presumption was it would supplant siloed provincial and territorial online efforts and serve as a better tool for matching the vanished with the anonymous dead.

But the RCMP-led National Centre for Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains (NCMPUR) hasn’t progressed fast enough for Ontario, the province with the most anonymous dead. A Globe and Mail investigation has found that Canada’s strategy falls far short of the U.S. model, considered the gold standard.

The Ontario chief coroner’s office and forensic pathology service are now working with the provincial police to revamp their digital outreach to help identify the nameless and bring some closure to families of the disappeared. In some cases, identifications could breathe new life into stalled police investigations and help bring killers to justice.

“We have a responsibility to the people of Ontario and we can’t abdicate our responsibility to a federal agency,” said forensic anthropologist Kathy Gruspier, who is leading a review of Ontario’s 239 unidentified-remains cases.

The Conservative government had heralded the national centre’s creation, noting it would serve as an important investigative tool for police and death investigators, and could also help address the “disturbing number” of unsolved cases of murdered and missing aboriginal women.

But The Globe has found that Canada’s national strategy, compared with that of the United States, is less citizen-driven and doesn’t store records such as dental charts and X-rays, which could assist in identifying human remains. NCMPUR also does not know whether its database analysis is leading to confirmed identifications.

Federal plans for a much-anticipated DNA data bank to link missing persons with unidentified remains, expected in 2017, are also falling short of the U.S. model. The RCMP have told The Globe that Ottawa will not pay for DNA testing, as Washington does. It will also be up to Canadian police, coroners and medical examiners to decide which types of DNA to profile. In the U.S., a centralized lab always attempts to analyze two types.

Some aboriginal leaders are now calling on Ottawa to strengthen its plans for the data bank, saying families of vanished women deserve answers. Indigenous women are far more likely to go missing or be killed than non-aboriginal women. In May, the RCMP released an unprecedented report showing 1,181 aboriginal women disappeared or were slain between 1980 and 2012.

Jean-Christophe de Le Rue, a spokesman for Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney, said the government is committed to ensuring the data bank is effective. He said DNA analysis will be consistent with international practices.

There are 697 anonymous dead in Canada, according to a Globe survey of the country’s coroners and medical examiners. One-third of those remains are in Ontario.

The chief coroner’s office and the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) launched a program to link the missing and unidentified in 2006. While updates to the public website have languished since the national centre’s creation, reports on missing persons and unidentified remains continue to be added to the database. Software is used to search for possible matches between missing persons reported to the OPP and Ontario’s unidentified remains.

The provincial effort, called Project Resolve, has led to the identification of 21 dead people since 2006, the OPP said. Meanwhile, the national centre, which launched a website in 2013 and a database for cross-matching last year, has not yet helped solve a single Ontario unidentified-remains case. The BC Coroners Service, which has 183 anonymous dead, said it doesn’t know whether tips from the national centre have helped identify any of its deceased.

NCMPUR has received 130 tips since its website started; other tips may have been reported to Crime Stoppers or the investigating agency noted on the site. The national centre’s database has flagged a dozen potential matches, but it’s unknown how many have led to identifications.

Ontario’s retooled effort is expected this year. The provincial website will include more information about individual cases than exists on the RCMP site.

Ontario’s chief coroner, Dirk Huyer, said he wants the NCMPUR initiative to work. Developing a robust national system is the best way to link cases that cross provincial and territorial boundaries and international borders, he noted.

“Anything we can do at the bigger, broader level [is for] the best,” the chief coroner said, stressing that his office is still co-operating with the national centre.

OPP Detective Superintendent Dave Truax said Project Resolve underscored the need for a national effort. By working with BC Coroners Service – an initiative that also began in 2006 – Ontario was able to put names to some of its deceased.

“It’s extremely important that Canada capitalizes on the opportunity to network all or our provinces and territories together,” Det. Supt. Truax said.

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